If you have seen a heavyweight boxer bounce around in his corner before the bell rings for round one of 15, if you have watched a three-year old thoroughbred loaded into the gates before a Kentucky Derby, then you are impressed but not surprised at the tableau of John Wiedeman, radio voice of the Blackhawks, as he braces for the opening puck drop from his broadcast booth high above center ice at the United Center.
“He’s wired,” says Troy Murray, an outstanding player in his day, now Wiedeman’s color analyst on WGN 720, flagship station for the Stanley Cup champions. “Besides that, if you asked me for one word to describe John, it would be ‘professional.’”
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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Wiedeman is in the fifth season of what he calls his “dream job,” and the manner in which he surrounds it like the Energizer bunny confirms what he tells you in the very next breath. “It’s a job I never thought I would have, only dreamed of having,” says the man who, as late as his early 30s, was serving an internship in the business, hoping to build a resume strong enough to catch a break.
When Wiedeman was hired in 1992 for play-by-play with the Muskegon Fury of the since defunct Colonial League at the princely sum of $12,000, he knew it was a start. There was never any doubt where he wanted to finish.
“I had always followed the Blackhawks, from afar, being born in Kansas City,” Wiedeman says. “When I came to Chicago, I had a number of jobs. Among them, bartender at Zanies in Mount Prospect. Whenever I had a chance, or the money, I would line up outside the old Stadium to scare up a standing room ticket so I could run up to the second balcony. Now, to be here, it’s indescribable.”
Here, according to Wiedeman, is the “Neighborhood.” His perch at the UC is just above the 300 level, all the better to exchange banter and fist bumps when time permits with fans who return, night after night. He is unfailingly organized and focused for his broadcast, but Wiedeman’s devotion to duty extends well beyond. Wiedeman will talk hockey and Blackhawks with a complete stranger in the middle of the summer. In the middle of the winter, he is an on-air ambassador for the franchise and the sport. “In spite of the result,” Wiedeman implored listeners after a recent home defeat to Nashville, “please drive safely.”
Wiedeman stands throughout the entire game, which he begins on an empty stomach. After breakfast, he refrains from meals because, he says, too much food renders him light-headed and lethargic. After the first period he might nibble on some pretzels. After the second, a real feast, a sandwich. By then, he’s into the flow, and quite the flow it is. Hockey is rife with broken plays and serial changes of possession.
Most broadcasters omit inconsequential touches. Wiedeman omits the omissions. There are no known statistics for most words uttered per minute in the NHL, but surely he would be among the leaders. Wiedeman’s rooting interests are clear, yet the tone of his voice never betrays that the Blackhawks are losing. You will, however, always know where the puck is, who’s got it, and whence it came.
“He’s so good,” Murray marvels, “that I can be finishing up saying something while the play has started again, and John will catch up on what happened while I was talking. He fast-forwards to live action like you wouldn’t believe. And preparation. Never seen anything like it. Our first trip to Denver and the new building, the Pepsi Center, he goes up to the booth at the morning practice to check out the sightlines, just to make sure there won’t be any surprises.”
After Muskegon, Wiedeman went to the Worcester IceCats of the AHL. There he met his future wife, Kelly, at a recreational hockey game. “I thought she was the best player on the ice,” he says about the former ECAC Division 1 Player of the Year at Providence College.
In 1996-97, Wiedeman went to the Cup finals with the Philadelphia Flyers. After the Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL collapsed at a subsequent stop, Wiedeman feared it was over between him and the microphone. But the New York Islanders called, and there he went until 2006. Then the Blackhawks carelessly let Pat Foley escape and Wiedeman’s cell phone rang again. “I had one bite of a fish sandwich,” he says. “Chicago wanted me. Heaven. I don’t think I ever finished that fish sandwich.”
Now Foley is back where he should be, with Eddie Olczyk on TV, while Wiedeman and Murray comprise another excellent and popular tandem on radio. Wiedeman praises Murray as the best color man he’s ever worked with, and Murray returns the volley, saying he can’t imagine a more passionate play-by-play partner. Their chemistry is apparent. Despite Wiedeman’s fastidious attention to detail, Murray has room to roam between whistles and 50,000-watt laughter is plentiful.
“Did you hear about the cough box?” Murray wonders. Ah, the cough box. Alas, Wiedeman struggles with sinus issues. Always has. He’s had injections, surgeries, procedures. Thus, that cough box below his left hand is a must. When there’s a pause in the action, Wiedeman will tap the button to cut off the sound from the mic on his headset.
“Those buttons, the red one and the green one?” muses Paul Zerang, WGN engineer. “They’re custom built. They’re like the ones on slot machines. They can take a lot of abuse. They’re able to withstand thousands of hits. Millions. John, he broke the cough box a couple years ago. In the middle of the season.”
Broke a cough box? Harry Caray leaned on one of those gizmos while doing baseball for half a century and he never did that. Broke a cough box?
“I broke a cough box!” says Wiedeman, packing as much zeal as he would painting the picture of a Blackhawks breakaway goal to untie a score in the third period. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”